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Hello from the depths of my visa nightmare! Yes…I’m being a little dramatic, but it has taken about two weeks of living in worry and despair for me to be able to somewhat joke about our troubles so far in Beijing. I haven’t posted for nearly a month because we have been busy packing up in Tangshan, saying goodbyes, finding an apartment here and dealing with all sorts of visa issues. My position also didn’t work out, but David’s work has been nice enough to help both of us out. However, there have still been multiple set-backs in this process and I’m still not sure if I will be on an over-night train to Hong Kong in two days for a ‘visa run.’ However, please no worries, I still have some good options. I can teach full-time again, but I would much rather work in a field where I have greater interest and experience, like non-profit, travel, events/marketing, etc. So, that’s the long and the short of it right now, and I will update you shortly with any progress. Fortunately, between networking events, job applications and momentary break-downs when it takes me nearly two hours in the rain to drop off some photos at David’s job across town…we have still been able to dive into the sights and sounds of Beijing.

For this post, however, let me take a step back and detail our last few precious moments with Matthew Busa. On Busa’s last day David and he visited the Silk Market and David reported that Busa was an instant haggling pro. He managed to get two North Face jackets for $45 and some pearls for his girlfriend at an equally steller rate (although I can’t remember it.) Apparently Busa is a recent graduate of the David Jacobs School of Iron Roostery (“iron rooster” is the Chinese translation for penny-pincher or cheap skate) and managed to pack his suitcase full of a few more great deals. We said goodbye to Busa after a really nice visit, only to find out a few hours later that he wasn’t really ready to leave Beijing! His flight was postponed until the next day, and the airline put him up in a hotel outside of the city. Unfortunately he had zero RMB left after his shopcation and was put-up far away from downtown, so we didn’t meet back up. Overall though it was great to see a friend from home, and hopefully Busa didn’t get too sick of us.

Back in Tangshan, it was our mission to quickly do all of our favorite things, which mostly included having good food with our friends. *Pictures provided* First up, we went to Shirley’s lao shi’s (aka Lao ShiLey) favorite restaurant for the best gong pao ji ding (kung pao chicken) in China. Next, we took photos with our favorite neighborhood buddies who we often had a chat with before turning in for the night. The guy with the white tank top, blue dress shorts, and black dress shoes (sweet outfit he wore every night) was our building-neighbor who actually printed off these photos and delivered them to our door as a goodbye present. The other man in the blue polo, whom we called Pandagui because his name sounded something like that, hounded us every night to take a trip with him in his car. Unfortunately he had always been drinking a LOT, and we didn’t think that was the best idea. He also brought us to his personal storage space one night and presented us with a few English books. We were greatly appreciative, despite the fact the books were for learning college English.

OK, wrapping this up for our next visa meeting…more to come soon.

And, roughly quoting Don Draper from the last episode of Madmen, “Humans are flawed because we always want more, but then when we get it, we yearn for what we had.”

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It was a trying three nights in Beijing this past week, and we got a good dose of some of the challenges to come in Beijing. Sunday night we took the bus from Tangshan to Beijing to meet back up with Matt, and checked in to a hotel. It was a pretty crap one, with huge dips in the center of the bed and pillows, and the room stank of beef. Anyway, we headed to Wanfujing for dinner, but unfortunately it was a Sunday night and most things were closing down. We attempted to take a taxi to Hou Hai, the western bar and restaurant area, but the taxis weren’t using meters and only charging “foreign” rates, so we ate at one of the only open restaurants.

On Monday I woke up sick and felt like I had the flu. I wasn’t too tempted to stay home from work though…as sleeping in the crud bed was a nightmare, so I headed to the subway. I tried a few times to take a cab to work, but for some reason I don’t understand Beijing cabs seem very lazy and they always told me it was “too far.” When I entered the subway, I knew it wasn’t going to be fun. There was some type of back up, and I was shuffled into a large crowd of people waiting for the trains. One came, didn’t stop…and went by us. The second came…picked up a small amount of people, and left. By the third train I felt like I was about to pass out from heat, but I was literally shoved off of the platform and made it on. It was definitely uncomfortable to have no control of where the crowd moved me, but at least I made it on.

David and Matt also had transportation problems that day. They found the local buses going to the Great Wall, but the driver and passengers wouldn’t let them on. Despite the fact that David was communicating in Chinese, the Beijingers seemed to be saying that these buses weren’t for foreigners. Instead of causing a scene, they left the buses and shared a taxi with two nice guys that were also going to the wall. My best guess on that one is that they want foreigners to pay more to do touristy things. Fortunately, the Wall and visit to the Silk Market proved to be much better experiences, and Matt bought some sweet gear to bring home. A North Face jacket for $35, anyone?

On Tuesday I had to take a cab to a visa office, and was very worried, since it really WAS far away. The first guy we asked didn’t know where I was going, but I really got lucky with the second driver. He talked on my cell phone to the office to find out the directions, we chatted on the way there, and he even agreed to stay and wait to take me back into the city after the meeting. He was really good at understanding my Chinese, and even pulled out a little chair to wait for my appointment to end without charging extra! Unfortunately this excursion and work caused me to miss Matt’s last day, but I did get to meet two US Embassy employees who worked in cultural outreach. Apparently Hillary Clinton has set up a new office dedicated to women’s issues at the Embassy, so there should be some growth in women’s initiatives in Beijing. Also, one of the women is married to a guy who grew up in Vienna, VA, ahhh! On Tuesday night David and I also had a fun conversation with some locals in a Hutong outside of our hotel.

By Wednesday I was feeling better, but David was sick. I headed off to work, made some progress in planning the women’s program and headed off to another meeting at restaurant (Alla Osteria) that would potentially be a host for some events. It was an incredible stroke of luck that I found the place (I almost started crying when I realized I had no idea how to find my way around, I wrote down the wrong metro but the cab driver miraculously took me to the general vicinity), and the owners were such characters. The husband is an extremely laid-back and generous Italian who speaks very little Chinese, while the wife is a Beijinger with sharp business skills and no-nonsense attitude. Well, the place was great and so were the owners, so I was so glad I managed to make the meeting. It even turned out that the wife’s family is from Tangshan! Of course…after the meeting my phone died and I had to go to starbucks for free internet to try and find where David was in the city. We tried exchanging emails but didn’t connect and ended up taking separate buses home. When I got back, I was greeted by the nice surprise of our neighbor who had printed out the two photos we took with him.

What a roller coaster, and I’m sure there’s more to come. My only thoughts are that I need an iPhone. Odd conclusion, you ask? Not really. An iPhone would allow me to translate and show directions to cab drivers more easily, help when I’m lost and allow me to contact David! But alas, I will have to continue to be resourceful.

David has kindly reminded me that I haven’t been updating the blog as much as I should…but never fear, I have been keeping notes and remember everything I want to share!  Backing up a little, the dust storm really was crazy.  This whole month (yes…we have made it a month already, can you believe it?!) I have felt like I live on a movie set, where someone just controls all the people and atmosphere because it seems too foreign to be real.  If you have ever seen the movie The Truman Show…I feel like that.  The dust storm was the best representation of this feeling so far, riding on my bike through sand and dust to school, I just felt like some special effects guy had just switched on the “Asian Dust Storm” switch.  Oddly enough, when we exited a train station in Beijing, we stumbled across some Mongolian tourists who wanted to take our picture.  I think in the trade-off between dust storms and photos, they won.

I have to recount a funny story that happened in school the day of the dust storm.  I teach a class called NC-1.  It’s an intermediary class for kids that did not pass the previous level and need extra attention.  As you can imagine, this class is tough.  I was reviewing the months of the year, and asked Logan, what month do you like?  He smiled and said, “I like watermelons!”  Oh good, Logan understands the “I like” concept.  So I explained, can you look at the list of the months in the book in front of you: Jan, Feb, etc.  “Logan, I like February because it’s my birthday, or I like August…”  Logan says, “Ohhhh, dui dui (yes, yes), I like watermelons!”  OK, that was a huge fail for me…but the Chinese teacher and I had a good laugh about it after class.  Next class, we will review “I like” and Logan will pass with flying colors.

Lets see, in part of getting our resident permits we had a short interview with a Tangshan government official.  One thing that was very interesting about the government offices is that they all had beds in them!  I’m not sure why, and I reallly like this custom, but it was very unique.  Also, we asked the official about how many foreigners were in Tangshan, since we have seen 4.  He said 700, but half of those work for a German branch of Siemans, 200 are medical students, and the rest are teachers or students.  He said lots of Taiwanese and Pakistani come to study medicine.

One thing I also wanted to mention about the first night in Beijing was the Lao Beijing (Old Beijing) area.  It is near the food street, but is a small area of the city set up with little windy roads and tons of vendors to look more like an old-fashioned Beijing market.  As you may know, I completely love markets and got a total kick out of this place.  There are people and knick-knacks on every corner, and  it’s just a fun vibe.  Also, a funny thing about all the markets (Night Market, Silk, Lao Beijing) is that the Chinese vendors know limited but tourist friendly Chinese.  They are always shouting,  “hello lady, do you like, do you want?  or funny phrases like “Mmmm silk worms!”

OK, now to tell you about the second day in Beijing.  First we walked around the city and found the train station, which is next to the bus station, to buy our tickets home.  It was a VERY confusing experience because although there is a direct line from Beijing to Tangshan, it’s in an unmarked, abandoned-looking tile room about 2 blocks from the actual bus station.  Luckily Eddie had drawn us a map and warned us about this craziness, but it was still shocking.  We found out that we didn’t need to pre-purchase tickets, and would just need to show up 10 minutes before we wanted to leave at night, so we headed on towards the Silk Market.  The Silk Market is the best-known shopping center in Beijing…and it’s incredible.  Oh to see the look on some of you fashionistas faces at this 6-story mega shop!  There are rows upon rows of vendors selling everything from name-brand clothes to Chinese souvenirs.  They have leather jackets, sevens and true religion jeans, paintings, signature seals, pearls, luggage, watches, massages, DVDs…basically shopping heaven!  However, as David mentioned, this place is packed with tourists that come in by the busload, so the first price the vendors offer is outrageous, not even a deal in the states.  In the end, however, if you are persistent, there are huge deals to be had.  Although I wanted to buy a million things, we managed to escape with two paintings (originally offered at over $100 US, bartered by David to about $22) and a tea-strainer mug.  I can’t wait to check out this place with some of you…and buy cashmere together!

After the silk market we headed to the Olympic Village to see the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube.  They were huge, cool and just like you have seen them on TV.  There were a surprising amount of people milling about, but we decided we should go again at night because it would probably look more exciting.  Don’t get me wrong…it’s all really impressive architecture, but not much to do in that area.  We also tried to find this pizza place called the Kro’s Nest that had been recommended to us by some of the teachers, but ended up being taken to Domino’s.  I was starving at that point and didn’t feel like looking anywhere else for food, so much to David’s displeasure we had a $20 pizza.  I thought it was pretty good though!

From there we took a cab to the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, Yonghegong.  On the way to the temple was an entire street filled with incense vendors, and the temple itself was very ornate.  I think pictures will describe it better than I can, but it was a great example of a traditional buddhist temple, complete with many rooms housing gold Buddhas.  Many Chinese were also kneeling and praying to the Buddhas with incense, and there were many buses full of tourists there as well.  I was getting extremely tired at this point…David is a walking machine and all I could think about was cuddling up with our new DVDs, so we began another long walk to the bus station.  We stopped on the way at a great vegetarian restaurant and caught the bus home from the divey little room-station.

Overall we were really impressed with Beijing, minus the air quality, and are looking forward to going back!  Today I heard about the Health Care legislation and Google pulling out of mainland China, which are both big updates for me.  I will have to see how this Health Care bill plays out, as I am currently paying for US insurance in fear of having a “gap” in coverage during my time in China, waaah wah and clearly Google pulling out of China completely would not be good.  In other news, I got a haircut today from the best guy in the shop for under $2 and we had our first official Chinese class.  I think we are eager students…but are still completely tone deaf!!!  Also, just as a reminder, the Avon Walk is in one month and if you are looking to fulfill your charitable budget for the year, I know some pretty awesome walkers that still need funds.

Goodbye for now from the land of tea.

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